In defense of league average

Derek Lowe's 4.00 ERA, just a tick better than league average, was a big part of the Atlanta Braves' run to the playoffs.
Derek Lowe's 4.00 ERA, just a tick better than league average, was a big part of the Atlanta Braves' run to the playoffs.

Some friends and I were having a nice discussion the other day about how good a certain baseball player has been over the last few years, and it gave me occasion to dust off one of my favorite concepts: A league-average player is a pretty good player.

No way, one friend said. League average is average. That’s not good.

The word average is one reason this is such a tough concept to get across, I think. We say something — a restaurant, say, or a TV show — is “average” when we mean it’s not that good, not worth going back to or going out of our way for.

And if I gave you a list of average players in any given league, by whatever measure, sure enough, you wouldn’t be thrilled. Using the blunt instrument measures of ERA for pitchers and OPS for hitters, the closest thing to league-average starting pitchers in 2010 were Derek Lowe and Doug Fister, while your league-average hitters were Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena. Note that I’m throwing out pitchers hitting, because they’re just a different species.

Lowe, Fister, Rodriguez and Pena are not the kinds of players who sell tickets on their own, at least not the 2010 versions of them.

But just because someone isn’t thrilling doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable. Players who can put up average performance in significant playing time are valuable because they’re pretty rare. As much as league-average guys fail to inspire awe, there aren’t that many of them. An average player is better than most other players in the league.

You need a few elite players to contend for the championship, but if you can plug a league-average guy into a position, you’re not just treading water. You’re ahead of the game at that spot.

Here’s what I mean. Not counting pitchers hitting, there were 645 players who made at least one plate appearance in the majors in 2010. Only 95 of them qualified for the batting title with an OPS at or above the league average for non-pitchers. That’s 16 percent of all position players, but they accounted for 35.4 percent of the non-pitcher plate apearances, 37.2 percent of the hits and 48.8 percent of the home runs.

Those numbers don’t change much if you consider players at their position. Ninety-nine players qualified for the batting title while putting up at least a league average OPS for their position. That is, an American League first baseman putting up a .788 OPS or an N.L. shortstop putting up a .713

The same thing happens with pitchers. Of the 635 men who threw a pitch in the majors in 2010 — including the odd position players who tossed an inning or two — 60 of them qualified for their league’s ERA title with a league-average or better ERA. That’s 9.4 percent of all pitchers, and they accounted for 28.3 percent of all innings pitched.

These guys — able to sustain average or better performance over significant playing time — are hugely valuable. They account for a disproportionate amount of the league’s production. But I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Am I really still reading this?”

Aramis Ramirez's had an off year, but his .745 OPS was close to league average, overall and for his position -- still pretty good.
Aramis Ramirez had an off year, but his .745 OPS was close to league average, overall and for his position -- still pretty good.

Wait, that’s not what you’re saying. You’re saying, “But you’re talking about average and above, Mr. Man. You’re giving average players credit for the production of elite players.”

OK, so let’s remove elite players. Of course, elite is a slippery concept, but I think I’ve got a decent working definition: League average OPS, plus 10 percent. If you do that for each position, you get 50 elite players, about three per league per position.

If you just look at everybody vs. the overall league average, you get 23 American Leaguers who beat the league OPS of 736 by 10 percent and 27 National Leaguers who beat the league OPS of .746 by 10 percent. Remember, we’re throwing out pitchers’ hitting totals in both leagues, though that moves the needle only a bit in the A.L. So that’s 50 elite players. I’m comfortable with a definition of elite that yields 50 position players. You? OK, let’s use that group.

There were 95 hitters at or above league average in 2010. Taking out those 50 elite players, we’re left with 45 who had an average or better OPS, but were not elite.

Those 45 average or better but not elite players made up 5.4 percent of all non-pitchers. But they accounted for 15.4 percent of all non-pitcher plate appearances, and 16.1 percent of the hits and 16.8 percent of the home runs by non-pitchers.

When we’re talking about players who were league average or better but not elite, we’re still talking about the narrow top of the pyramid.

Know why? Because league average is pretty good.

There aren’t many guys who can be league average over sustained playing time. Having a bunch of them on your team is going a long way toward being a good team, because the alternative to that league-average guy is rarely an elite guy. It’s almost always a below-average player. After all, a majority of the players in the majors are below average.

I didn’t want to mention the name of the player my friends and I were calmly debating because he’s a problematic example of the value of a league-average player. I think you’ll see why when I tell you who he is in the next post, when I’ll put a couple of names to this concept that I think will illustrate the point beautifully.

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Lowe photo by The Suss-Man (Mike) / Creative Commons

Ramirez photo by guano / Creative Commons

Wall Street Journal feeds the “small ball” myth

Noted smallball enthusiast Vladimir Guerrero stretches out before a regular-season game. He's 0-for-1 stealing in the World Series.
Noted smallball enthusiast Vladimir Guerrero stretches out before a regular-season game. He's 0-for-1 stealing in the World Series.

Another example of why putting our faith in the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media because they are the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media is not the brightest idea.

Here is a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “Hitting Baseballs, Just Not as Far: Giants and Rangers Win With Contact Hitting, Bunts and Baserunning; the ‘Lost Arts.'” The piece, by Matthew Futterman and Brian Costa, explains that the Giants and Rangers have gotten to the World Series via “the kind of aggressive baserunning and timely, intelligent situational hitting and bunting that younger fans, the ones who came of age during baseball’s era of jet propulsion, have rarely seen.”

“Jet propulsion” refers to the home-run-happy steroids era, “a time when the chief ingredient of a winning team was a pack of happy oafs whose job was to hit the baseball into the next Congressional district.”

To prove their point, the Journal writers — well, they wave their arms around a lot.

The numbers tell the story rather starkly. Last year, the teams in the World Series — the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, ranked first and third in the majors in home runs. The Rangers and Giants rank No. 10 and No. 11.

San Francisco was 17th in runs scored and 13th in slugging percentage this season. But they ranked fifth in strikeouts and third in sacrifice bunts in the National League and fourth in all of baseball in sacrifice hits. [Snip: A couple of quotes from Cody Ross and Brian Sabean, respectively, about how the Giants take good swings and “know how to compete.” ]

Texas was only ninth in slugging percentage, but the team had the most sacrifice bunts in the American League, the second-most sacrifice flies and the fourth fewest strikeouts. The Rangers were also seventh in the majors in stolen bases.

So how well does a certain ranking in runs scored or slugging percentage or sacrifice flies or stolen bases correlate with winning? We don’t get much of a clue, except that the Yankees and Phillies were first and third, which is actually wrong. They were first and tied for second. The Phillies tied for second with the Rangers, who didn’t make the playoffs. In 2008 the Phillies were second in homers and went to the Series, where they played the Tampa Bay Rays, who were tied for ninth.

In 2007 the Boston Red Sox, 18th in home runs, beat the Colorado Rockies, 15th, despite both teams playing their home schedule in homer-friendly parks. In 2000, the height of the supercharged steroid era, when major leaguers hit more home runs than in any other year in history, the World Series pitted the Yankees, 10th in homers, and the New York Mets, 12th.

We’re really in a new era here, where you don’t have to lead the league in homers to make the World Series! Like you did in 2009!

But don’t listen to me. Here’s Cybermetrics, “the sabermetric blog of Cyril ‘Cy’ Morong, professor of economics at San Antonio College,” responding to the Journal piece by pointing out that all that sacrificing and stealing and not hitting home runs and so on is not resulting in any extra runs or wins for either the Giants or the Rangers.

Using these crazy things called history and math, Morong shows that teams that get on base and slug at the rates the Giants and Rangers do tend to score about as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year. And he points out that, given their pitching — a concept the Journal barely nods toward, though it’s basically the whole story for the Giants — teams that score as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year can be expected to win just about as many games as they did.

In other words: “There are no extra wins due to using ‘lost arts.’ In fact, they have done well by some combination of hitting for power and getting on base and generally preventing their opponents from doing so. This is a time honored way of winning.”

The Journal piece concludes with a quote from Giants president Larry Baer, who is a business man, not a baseball man: Baer “said there is more passion for this team than any in his 18 years with the organization. ‘It validates that this game is an art and not a science,’ he said.”

Except it doesn’t validate that. The team’s popularity might validate that marketing is an art, or that a city’s passion for a team involves some strange, hard-to-fathom alchemy. But there’s plenty of science involved in the baseball.

The Giants would do well to understand that science a little better. If they did, they wouldn’t owe Barry Zito — not good enough to make the postseason roster — $64.5 million over the next four years. They wouldn’t owe Aaron Rowand — worthy of eight plate appearances in 15 postseason games — $24 million over the next two years. The people who do understand the science and root for the Giants screamed their heads off over both of those signings.

The Journal could do a better job of it too. You know, like some blogger in his mother’s basement an economics department in San Antonio.

Photo: Benson!!/Flickr Creative Commons

Revisionist history: San Francisco never loved Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds acknowledges cheers before NLCS Game 3 in San Francisco.
Barry Bonds acknowledges cheers before NLCS Game 3 in San Francisco.

It’s true, as many in the national media have written, that this year’s National League champion San Francisco Giants have captured the imagination of the city in a way that the Barry Bonds-led teams straddling the turn of the century did not. It’s easy to love a champion, but San Francisco had already fallen hard for this Giants club before the regular season ended. It’s one of those love-affair years.

But it’s revisionist history to say that the teams of the late ’90s and early ’00s were not beloved by the fans because the fans didn’t like Barry Bonds. I can’t put it any more simply that this: San Francisco fans absolutely loved Barry Bonds. There was no ambivalence at all.

It was the writers who didn’t like him. For all the negative talk about him, he was a garden variety beloved superstar before the steroid revelations. And by that I mean the smoking gun of the BALCO case, which broke in the 2003-04 offseason, not the rumors and accusations that had flown around Bonds for a couple of years before that.

And even after BALCO, it was a very small percentage of San Francisco fans who gave a flying damn about Bonds and steroids. A vast majority of the outrage and worry came from the media — and of course fans in other cities. Everyone is always very, very concerned about steroid use by the visiting team.

Even when Bonds was chasing Henry Aaron’s career home run record, by which time there was no doubt that Bonds, in addition to all the other aspects of his toxic personality, was a user of illegal drugs intended to enhance performance, relatively few Giants fans were troubled in the least by him. I should know because I was one of those who were troubled, and the meetings were not crowded.

Here’s my pal Gary Kamiya writing in Salon the year before the record-breaking homer:

If Barry hits it at home and I’m lucky enough to be there, I’ll be screaming like God had just opened the seventh seal. And I’ll be doing that even though I’m 99 percent sure Barry cheated — and I don’t approve of cheating.

I won’t be alone. There will be 40,000 screaming Giants’ fans around me experiencing the same non-asterisked rapture, and several hundred thousand more fans throughout Northern California.

No, Barry Bonds did not keep San Francisco from loving the Giants team that went to the World Series in 2002 or the playoff teams in 1997, 2000 and 2003. Those teams were loved just fine. But not as much as this year’s team.

I think it’s the natural course of things that some versions of a team are more beloved than other versions. Some years, it clicks. This Giants team is led by enormously likable players — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Buster Posey and, to a lesser extent because he didn’t play well, 2009 revelation Pablo Sandoval. On top of that, it has an Island of Misfit Toys makeup — led by Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and Pat Burrell — that fans in any city are going to love when it works. Plus, the team was involved in an exciting three-way playoff race.

The only other time I can remember this kind of feeling around the Giants — non-fans talking about them and excited about them while the season was going on — was in 1993, when Barry Bonds was a newly signed free agent, a local kid, the superstar son of a former Giants star. The pennant race with the Atlanta Braves that year was out of this world, and the Giants had probably the best team they’ve ever had in San Francisco.

If Barry Bonds had started doing steroids that year and word had got out about it, that team would not have been any less loved in San Francisco. I’m sure of it.

Every playoff year can’t be a love-affair year. Most of the time when the home team is good it’s just regular old fan excitement going on. But once in a while, everything clicks and a team stands a city on its ear. That happened with the Giants this year. It happened in 1993. It didn’t happen in the playoff years in between, but not because San Franciscans couldn’t root for Barry Bonds.

All that ambivalence San Francisco felt about Barry Bonds that you’ve been reading about: I don’t know whether it’s projection or faulty memories. But I do know this: It’s fiction.

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Photo: Artolog/Flickr Creative Commons

Baseball instant replay: Tech isn’t magic

Marie Wegman of the Fort Wayne Daisies "argues" with ump Norris Ward in 1948
Marie Wegman of the Fort Wayne Daisies "argues" with ump Norris Ward in 1948

For the third straight baseball postseason, umpires have been making critical, high-profile mistakes in game after game, and there’s a growing drumbeat among media and fans that Major League Baseball has to do something about it. And not just any something, but one specific something: instant replay.

The entire conversation about umpiring has been predicated on the assumption that the only solution to the problem is a technological one, which is fascinating — and maybe just a little troubling — because everyone in the conversation knows two things: There are acres of room for improvement that has nothing to do with technology, and the technology itself is far from perfect.

We know from other sports, especially NFL football, that video replay is hardly perfect. Putting aside the unnecessarily long delays that accompany video replay in the NFL, it’s a simple fact about video that it does not always provide conclusive evidence of what happened. Camera angles can be as deceptive as the naked eye.

And more important, the NFL’s replay system is a laboratory of unintended consequences. Introduced for the same reason many people want to introduce replay to baseball — to put an end to egregious officiating mistakes — it has become the lord of officials. It has changed the way officials call games. Refs now err on the side of the reviewable call, or make no call at all so replay can be possible. They have changed the way they call fumbles and completions. Watch an old NFL game from before replay and you’ll be struck at the difference in officiating and rules interpretation.

People will argue over the specifics of those last two paragraphs, but there’s no one familiar with replay who doesn’t know that replay is far from perfect, that despite — I would say because of — replay being entrenched in the NFL for years, officiating is still such a problem that a huge number of fans can convince themselves that a recent Super Bowl was fixed by the refs.

Yet the only anti-replay argument that ever sees the light of day is the Luddite one: Instant replay would rob baseball, that most human of games, of an essential human element.

That’s a valid argument, but it’s a religious one. No one is ever going to be argued off of it, and if you don’t buy it, you’re not going to be talked into it.

But it’s interesting that the argument against it goes like this: Instant replay might not be perfect, but it’s better than what we have now, so we should use it. That argument ignores a vital question. Is instant replay better than some other solution?

If you’ve been around as long as most of the people who are in the most public part of this argument — media figures and baseball officials — technology has been a series of miracles in your life. You can carry a supercomputer in your pocket that connects you to anywhere in the world all the time? Are you kidding? I’m not even 50 and I remember when it was a big deal that someone could leave you a taped message when they called your house — the only place you could have a phone — and you weren’t there.

Got a problem? Technology can probably fix it, and if not, just wait a little. It’s coming. Marvelous times.

But I think we sometimes forget that technology isn’t the only fix, and it isn’t always the best one, and not just for squishy reasons having to do with idealizing human error. Human error is a bad thing, and technology is often fantastic at doing away with it. But it can also do away with some good human things, like judgment and holistic problem solving.

Think about law enforcement for a moment — and sports officiating is essentially law enforcement. Which is more effective at fighting crime, an elaborate system of video surveillance or a program of job training, substance abuse education and treatment, community investment and so on? Or if that’s too liberal-sounding for you, focus in tighter. If you’re a parent, which is more effective at getting your kids to behave like solid citizens, spy cams around the house or engaged, loving parenting?

If you wanted to design a system that would result in poor umpiring, you would design Major League Baseball’s system. It’s positively medieval. Umpires essentially have lifetime tenure. They are sequestered from the media and answer only to a review system that is as secretive as it is pointless, since it hardly ever results in umpires losing their jobs. Instant replay won’t change that lack of accountability.

“We never know why or when they are fined, or reprimanded or held accountable,” Oakland A’s pitcher Brad Ziegler told ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson last week. “Any time a player is punished, suspended or sent down to the minors, the public knows about it. It would be a lot easier to communicate with umpires if everyone was held to similar standards. Our statistics as players are a lot more quantifiable than the umpires’.”

I am something of a Luddite when it comes to instant replay, not because I’m anti-technology — I have a long-distance line to New York in my pocket, and the call is free? Score! — but because I think baseball has been smart about being slow to change over the last century-plus. Replay would suddenly, irreversibly alter a game that has a pretty good history of solving its problems without radical, game-altering solutions.

I don’t believe baseball should absolutely avoid instant replay because instant replay is evil. I believe it should try to tackle the organizational problems that are leading to the poor umpiring rather than slap an electronic band-aid on them.

Nelson’s ESPN story is about a planned winter meeting between the grumbling players association, baseball officials and the umpires. Nelson describes such a meeting as “rare,” which is a problem right there. Shouldn’t the three parties involved in this major issue for Major League Baseball talk to each other more than rarely?

It’s a good step. I’m not too hopeful it’s going to lead to a new era of transparency and reform. No one from the umpires or Major League Baseball would comment for the story.

Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida

I’ve never cheered my team to a World Series win

Or: How the complicated calculus of who I root for has blocked the bliss

This might sound strange if you know that baseball teams I have rooted for have won World Series championships while I was rooting for them, but: I have never had the simple joy of rooting a baseball team to a World Series championship.

Please understand: I’m not whining here. I know some people have it worse than I’ve had it. There are Cubs fans, of course. There are lifelong fans of teams that have been around for a lifetime without winning a championship:  Astros, Rangers, Padres, Brewers. The late Expos. Even lifelong fans of my favorite team, the Giants, so decorated in the first half of the 20th century, have never cheered on a World Series winner unless their life has been longer than 60 years and their fandom survived the move west.

I am not a lifelong Giants fan. I’m a convert, so I don’t consider myself long-suffering. I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and while I missed their mid-century dominance of the National League — I was 3 in 1966 when they won their 10th pennant in 20 years — they did win two titles after I started paying attention around 1969. I’ve also rooted for the Oakland A’s since I moved to the Bay Area in the early ’80s, and they’ve won a World Series in that time. And I picked up the Cardinals as a second-tier sort of team when I lived in St. Louis, and they ended a quarter-century drought during my time there.

But there have always been complicating factors. As great as I’ve had it — and my life as a fan has been a fine, fine thing — I’ve never had that unalloyed joy of rooting the hometown nine through a season to the mob scene on the mound. I’ve got a chance this year with the Giants. First chance in a while. Fourteen strikeouts by Tim Lincecum in a 1-0 Game 1 win. So far, so good. I’m loving it.

Growing up, I lived and died with the Dodgers. I rooted for the Angels too, but they were my B team. That was partly because the Dodgers were better and more glamorous. They were a habitual upper-division club when I came into consciousness as a fan, and you could walk up to TV and B-list movie stars in the stands and get autographs or look into that narrow middle deck to see if Cary Grant was there. The Angels were terrible and nobody famous went to their games. But mostly it was because we lived in Los Angeles, in Dodgers territory. The Angels were that other team out in the suburbs.

Here’s my favorite celebrity story from the stands at Dodger Stadium. Someone in my family, probably my mom, spotted Lew Parker, who, it seems to me now, looking back at it, was kind of standing around next to his seat waiting to be recognized by the people. Lew Parker probably isn’t ringing any bells for you right now, even if you’re old enough to have seen Lew Parker when Lew Parker was somebody, which he only sort of was.

He played Lou Marie, the father of Marlo Thomas’ Ann Marie — she called him “Daddy” — on “That Girl.”

In those days my brother and I would try to get an autograph when we saw someone famous. I don’t remember ever doing anything with these autographs. I never had a collection. I don’t remember ever looking at them or organizing them or having anything to do with them after I got them. It was just a thing we did, an artifact of living on the Westside of Los Angeles. Oh, there’s Peter Graves. Go ask him for his autograph. Half the time I wouldn’t even know who the person was. It was just my mom or dad saying, “Hey, Peter Graves. Get his autograph.” Whoever Peter Graves was, or Robert Stack or someone.

Lew Parker I knew, though, and I went over, chirpy little 7-year-old that I was, and I asked him excuse me could I have your autograph. He was very nice and obliging of course, and he asked me if I played baseball. I said I did. This was my first year of Little League. He asked what team I played for and I said I played for the Minor Dodgers, meaning I played for the Dodgers in the minor division at my league, the little kids.

So he said, “And where do the Dodgers play?” I didn’t answer. I looked out at the field.  I looked back at him. Was this a trick question? “What?” I said, to buy a little time to think. “Where do the Dodgers play?” this wonderfully patient gentleman said. We were at the Dodgers game. I looked at the field again. They play right there, I thought. Are you some kind of fool?

I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation played out, and I don’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that he meant my Dodgers, not the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was asking me where my Little League was. I think I was about 30 when it hit me.

I was 11 when the Dodgers won the N.L. West for the first time, old enough to have lived through some disappointing seasons, battered just enough by fandom to appreciate that a playoff trip doesn’t happen every year. What a thrill it was. Here were the playoffs I’d been watching for my whole life — about four years — and they included, at long, long, suffering last, my favorite team.

It seems silly now that I thought about the Dodgers that way, as some kind of underdog or outsider. I was aware of the team’s history, the Boys of Summer, all those pennants in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the reputation as the classiest organization in baseball. I knew that a lot of people didn’t like the Dodgers because of all of that.

But the thing is, they hadn’t done that on my watch. The Dodgers I knew had been a whole lot of Andy Kosco and Bill Grabarkewitz and Willie Crawford. They’d win 85 games or so, enough to be a serious wild-card contender now, but in those days good enough for a polite second place,  way out of the money. In 1970 the Giants won the division with 90 wins, and it was sort of embarrassing. This year the Padres won 90 games and didn’t make the playoffs, and that seems so tragic people are talking about expanding the field again so terrific teams like that don’t get shut out.

The Dodgers beat the Pirates in the playoffs in ’74 but lost to the A’s in the World Series. They won the N.L. West again in ’77 and ’78, beating the Phillies in the playoffs and losing to the Yankees in the Series both times. They got  off to a good start in 1981, the great ’70s team probably on its last legs, when the players went on strike in mid-June, just as I was graduating from high school.

The strike lasted two months. Play resumed in mid-August, a few weeks before I went to Santa Cruz for college. The season didn’t seem real. The teams that had been in first place were declared “first half” champions and the remainder of the season would serve as a second half, minor-league style. It was rinky-dink. Fans were bitter. We’d gotten out of the habit that summer. Football was starting. I was going away to college. The hell with it.

This is going to sound crazy today, because I think it was kind of unusual even 30 years ago, but at my rather bucolic college hardly anybody had a phone, and nobody had a TV. In the dorms you had to buy a phone yourself to have one in your room, and maybe one person per floor would do it. There was a house phone in the lobby of each floor, but you could only make campus calls on it. There were pay phones around. The nearest TV was in a student lounge in the next building over. Nobody had one in their room.

Immersed in the beginning of my college career, living in the wilds of the UC-Santa Cruz campus, removed from non-ivory tower/happy hour civilization, I gave the rest of the baseball season a pass. I remember hearing about Nolan Ryan’s record fifth no-hitter weeks after the fact.

Of course the Dodgers won the World Series that year. It remains the only World Series played since 1968 without me seeing a single pitch.

I transferred to Berkeley as a junior. By then I had already dropped the Angels as my second team and adopted the A’s. In ’82 I was spending a lot of time in Berkeley and Rickey Henderson was stealing 130 bases for Billy Martin. Easy call.

The Dodgers made the World Series as big underdogs in 1988. By this time I was in grad school, living like a regular human being, with a phone and a TV and everything. I’d enjoyed the Dodgers’ upset of the Mets in the National League Championship Series immensely. There was just one problem. I’d also enjoyed the A’s win over the Red Sox in the ALCS. Now my two favorite teams were playing each other in the World Series. I couldn’t lose. Then again, it’s not so much fun to win when you’re also pulling for the other side. Ask the Williams Sisters about that.

I remember tuning into Game 1 not really knowing who I’d root for. The Dodgers had always been my Number 1 team, but the A’s had been my local nine for a half-dozen years now. I went to the Coliseum and followed them on TV. The Dodgers were long-distance. It was harder to root for a team, to follow them closely, from another city before cable TV and the Internet. You relied on box scores and game capsules in the newspaper, the very rare TV highlight that showed your team. You might see them play 10 games all year — if you lived in the city of a division rival.

Mickey Hatcher of the Dodgers hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning and ran around the bases clapping his hands. I sort of felt numb. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t really enjoy it. I’d been hoping my heart, or my brain, or somebody in there would decide for me, would just start rooting one way or the other and I could go with it. But I couldn’t undivide myself. I wanted the Dodgers to win and I wanted the A’s to win too. It wasn’t that I couldn’t lose, it was that I couldn’t win. It’s not a win if you’re not happy about the loser losing.

In the top of the second Jose Canseco hit a grand slam to put the A’s ahead. I knew it was hopeless. Today I think I would just wrench control from myself, tell myself to pick a team, dammit, root for them, root against the other team and shut up. I have more control over my emotions, maybe because I’ve lived through the unnatural act of transforming from a Dodgers fan to a Giants fan. But at 25 I wasn’t in control of much.

A few hours later Kirk Gibson hit the most famous home run I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t know whether to cheer or boo, laugh or cry or wind my watch. It went on that way for the rest of the Series, which, mercifully for me, ended quickly, the Dodgers winning in five in one of the greatest upsets ever, which on the one hand was a thrill to witness and on the other hand I couldn’t believe this 104-win juggernaut of an A’s team I’d rooted for all year, which had rewarded me so handsomely for sticking with them through the lean Jackie Moore Steve Boros Dave Kingman Bruce Bochte days, had gone down so meekly.

The next year, though, I finally had my chance. The A’s were monsters again. They waltzed away with the West, abused the Blue Jays in the playoffs, and who should they meet in the World Series? The Giants! I was not yet a convert. I hated the Giants. This was the pure stuff. An all-Bay Area Series, a remarkable thing, the first one-city Series in 33 years, with a clear hero and a clear villain for me. The A’s stomped ’em in the first two games, 5-0 and 5-1. Yes. This was going great.

Then right before Game 3,  the earthquake hit. Somehow they got the Series going again in less than two weeks, but it was an afterthought. The Bay Bridge was broken. The city was in chaos. Dozens of people had died in the freeway collapse a few miles from my apartment.

I didn’t lose any friends but it was still traumatic. For probably a year after the earthquake, this would happen about once a day: I’d be walking down the sidewalk, and as a car came toward me in the street, I would — involuntarily but vividly — picture it  jumping the curb and plowing into me at full speed. That hadn’t ever happened before the earthquake. It slowly went away.

The A’s dispatched the Giants in the last two games, and I didn’t know anyone who cared.

I converted from the Dodgers to the Giants in 1994, and with the expanded playoffs starting the year after that I had several chances to root for them and the A’s, in that order, in the postseason, but they made only one World Series appearance between them, the Giants’ heartbreaking loss to the Angels in 2002.

The Angels. Hey, I used to root for them. But I wasn’t rooting for them in 2002.

By that time I’d moved to St. Louis and adopted the Cardinals as my third team. I’d had a third team before but it hadn’t mattered much. On a family vacation to Toronto in 1977 I’d been to a Blue Jays game. It was their inaugural year. They were terrible and they played in the corner of a football stadium. I decided on the spot that I would root for the Blue Jays until they won their first division title, which they did in 1985 and that was that. I still have fond memories of Otto Velez and Lloyd Moseby and Dave Stieb and even Danny Ainge, but by the time they won the World Series in 1992 and ’93, the Jays were just another team to me.

The Cardinals won it all in 2006, their first championship in 24 years. I was pleased, but I wasn’t really a fan that night. I could hear the car horns blasting, but I was working, writing my sports column for Salon. I’ve never been one to pretend that I wasn’t rooting for one team or another just because I was writing about them, but when you’re working it’s not the same as sitting in the stands or in front of the TV with your pals.

I’d describe what I did more as pulling for the Cardinals than rooting for them. I wanted them to win because I’d followed them all year, I had met some of the players and the manager, it would be exciting for the town, my friends would be thrilled. But it didn’t really matter. I had other things to think about. If you gave me a choice of the Cardinals winning or the Cardinals losing in a much more compelling Series, I’d have taken the latter. Any sportswriter will tell you: There is too rooting in the press box. You root for the best story.

And now here we are in 2010 and my Giants are in the playoffs. I’m not writing a sports column. I have no duties. I am merely a fan, one who can’t really afford playoff tickets. But the TV’s fine. I’m watching with my 7-year-old son, who’s getting to watch his Giants in the playoffs in his first season of rooting for them. He’s probably thinking it’s no big deal, happens all the time. Last time it happened, he was in diapers. Little diapers.

Maybe we’ll get that thrill together, that uncomplicated charge you get when your home team gets that last out and celebrates on the infield as World Series champions.

At least I think you get it. I’ve never been there.

Tim Lincecum: Not more impressive than Doc Halladay

This New York Times blog post by Dan Rosenheck argues that Tim Lincecum’s two-hit shutout Thursday night “was actually both more impressive and more valuable” than Roy Halladay’s no-hitter Wednesday night.

More valuable because Lincecum had to throw a shutout for his team to win 1-0, while Doc had a three-run margin for error in a 4-0 victory. That’s true without being useful. A pitcher has no control, as a pitcher, over how many runs his team scores, though Halladay did have a key RBI single.

But more impressive? Then why is everyone, and I mean everyone, and I mean I bet even Lincecum if you asked him, more impressed by Halladay’s performance than by Lincecum’s? Is the whole world stupid?

No. Rosenheck argues that Lincecum pitched better because he struck out 14 while Halladay only struck out eight. “Extensive research into the subject shows that the vast majority of pitchers wind up giving up hits on about 30 percent of balls in play over the course of their careers,” Rosenheck writes. “As a result, the only ways for most pitchers to reduce the number of hits they allow are to avoid surrendering home runs and to get more strikeouts, so batters never put the ball in play to begin with.”

Defense-independent pitching statistics, which is what Rosenheck is writing about, tell us that variations on a .300 average on balls in play are mostly due to luck, and by Rosenheck’s figuring, “with normal luck, a pitcher with Halladay’s eight strikeouts, one walk, and zero home runs allowed in 28 batters faced would give up an average of 1.55 earned runs per nine innings, while one with Lincecum’s 14 strikeouts, 1 walk, and 0 home runs allowed in 30 batters faced would surrender just 0.37.”

That’s all fine, and looking at a career, or even a season, it’s a useful way to evaluate a pitcher. A whole season’s worth of innings reduces the role of variance — luck — quite a bit, and calculations like Rosenheck’s help us figure out by how much.

But we’re talking about one game here. In a single game, the bad news is that variance can play a huge role, but the good news is that we can see and remember the whole game. And if you saw Halladay’s no-hitter you know that there wasn’t a whole lot of luck involved in the 19 non-strikeout outs he got.

There was one reasonably hard-hit ball, a line drive, not a screamer but a well-hit ball, to shallow right field that Jayson Werth caught. There was one nice play, Jimmy Rollins ranging into the hole at shortstop. Either of those balls could have been hits, yes, but Rollins’ play wasn’t spectacular by any means, and if that ball had gone for a hit, it would have been a good example of luck — a batter getting a hit on a routine but well-placed bouncer.

Lincecum didn’t need a whole lot of flashy leather to get his 13 non-K outs either, but let’s not forget that he gave up two ringing doubles. Those shots, by Omar Infante and Brian McCann, didn’t just scoot humbly between infielders. They were well hit. Halladay didn’t give up anything like those two.

We’re comparing Michelangelo and Rembrandt here. It’s silly. Lincecum was fantastic, Halladay was fantastic. But to use a metric that shows Lincecum was better than Halladay is to find the limits of that metric. Comparing two single games in which almost nothing happened other than outs might be too much to ask of defense independent pitching stats. Sometimes we just have to trust our eyes, and with how impressed we are.

Bobby Cramer, John Lindsey and dreams deferred

Bobby Cramer made his major league debut Monday night. The left-hander started for the Oakland A’s in Kansas City and was the winning pitcher in a 3-1 game, allowing a run on four hits in five and a third innings, with four strikeouts and a walk.

This is notable because — as Tom Keegan writes in the Mercury News — Cramer has been out of organized baseball at least twice since he signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent out of Long Beach State in 2003. It’s notable because he’s had elbow surgery three times, because he’s worked at Shell Oil and as a substitute teacher, because he’s pitched in the independent Golden Baseball League and the Mexican League, and because he’ll turn 31 next month.

If you pay attention in September, you get rewarded with stories like this. September baseball means pennant races, such as they are in the wild-card era, but it also means an awful lot of teams playing out the string. Look closely, though, and there are rewards.

Sometimes it’s a glimpse of a dashing rookie, a future superstar getting his feet wet. A year before Buster Posey was a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, the best player on a Giants team that’s fighting for a playoff spot, he was a September call-up who spent most of his time in the dugout and got two hits in 17 at-bats as his team wheezed to the finish.

And sometimes it’s a guy on the other end of his career, a journeyman you’d figured had hung ’em up but who’s been hanging around at Triple-A and, hey look, here he is again. But the best ones are the lifetime minor leaguers who finally get their chance.

These are the guys who give those of us with a few miles on us permission to keep dreaming. You reach a certain age and you don’t get to imagine yourself as Buster Posey anymore. Simple mathematics will tell you that at the age of 47, to pick a number, you’re not going to be a 23-year-old phenom bursting onto the scene with six hits in nine at-bats, or whatever the equivalent would be in your racket, the way Posey did this May.

But a 30-year-old with a USW card and three scars on his throwing arm just getting to the big club reminds us that great triumphs can happen long after we’d scheduled them, sometimes long after we’d stopped believing they could happen, and they might not look like the triumphs we’d imagined.

Last week the Dodgers gave a September call-up to a 33-year-old first baseman named John Lindsey, who had spent 16 years in the minor leagues with four organizations without setting foot on a major league field. Lindsey had played in 1,571 minor-league games before getting into his first big-league ballgame last Wednesday in San Diego.

He was sent up to hit for Scott Podsednik in the eighth inning of a game the Dodgers were trailing 4-0. But when the Padres replaced left-hander Joe Thatcher with righty Luke Gregorson, Dodgers manager Joe Torre called the right-handed Lindsey back and sent up Andre Ethier. The Dodgers were 10 games out with 22 to play at the time.

After 6,342 plate appearances in the minors, Lindsey would have to wait for his first one in the majors while Ethier dug in for his 2,734th. It probably wasn’t the first time events hadn’t played out like the movie in Lindsey’s head. Ethier flied out to end the inning.

The next night in Houston Lindsey got another chance to pinch-hit, this time sticking around long enough to fly out to right field against Gustavo Chacin. Three days and five at-bats later, he got his first hit, a single off of Nelson Figueroa. John Lindsey’s going to fade back into the baseball background now, but for the rest of his life he’ll be a guy who made the major leagues. It’ll be in the first sentence of his obituary, that he played for the Dodgers.

Bobby Cramer, the A’s rookie who beat the Royals Monday night, might do the same, or he might stick around for a while. I don’t know. A few hours ago I’d never heard of Bobby Cramer. Now he has a win in the big leagues. Two more and he’ll match his total of elbow surgeries.

And here’s the best part about Cramer’s win over the Royals: Both Kansas City pitchers pitched well. The starter went five innings and gave up two unearned runs, the reliever went four and gave up one run. And aside from the fact that they were beaten by a 30-year-old undrafted former substitute teacher making his debut, the Royals’ two pitchers have one more thing in common. Luke Hochevar and Bryan Bullington both began their careers as the top overall pick in the June amateur draft.

Their careers aren’t working out as planned. One or both might end up being useful at some point, but they’re never going to be aces, which is what top overall draft picks are supposed to be.

But who knows. They got a glimpse of Bobby Cramer, didn’t they? Maybe it dawned on them that there can be other kinds of triumphs, later ones. They’re not sweeter — given the choice, most of us would like to be the phenom who turns into the superstar. But they might be worth waiting for.

Marlon Byrd 2-out RBI update

A month ago I wrote about Marlon Byrd and two-out RBIs. He’d written on his blog that he couldn’t explain his special ability to drive in runs with two down, but he described his approach at the plate in those situations, which was interesting to read about.

At the time he wrote, Byrd had 13 RBIs, 11 of them with two outs. At the time I wrote, he had 15 RBIs, 12 of them with two outs. There certainly must have been some magic going on there, right?

Like I said last month, no. Byrd’s prodigious two-out RBI total was just statistical noise. He’d flipped five coins, gotten tails four times, then tried to explain what made him so good at flipping tails. It was silly.

It’s nothing, of course, for some ballplayer to misinterpret his own numbers, especially since doing so might help him on the field. If Marlon Byrd believes in his heart that he has magical two-out RBI skills, the confidence might help him do a little better in that situation. Who knows. Or cares. It’s fun to have ballplayers writing blogs.

What’s annoying is when, for want of a better term, the media, the people who are supposed to describe and analyze the game for us, lazily fall into this kind of silly thinking, which happens approximately most of the time. As detailed in my post last month, my fascination with the two-out RBI was sparked years ago by ESPN lazily flashing a team two-out RBI statistic to further a story line that the then-Anaheim Angels were scrappy.

Byrd now has 27 RBIs, 13 of them with two outs. So since my post, he’s driven in 12 runs, and one of them has come with two outs.

What’s going on here? Gosh, I wish I knew, but oddly, Byrd has not posted anything to try to explain his sudden inability to drive in runs with two outs!

The magic of the 2-out RBI

I’ve been suspicious of claims that individuals or teams are extra special good with two outs ever since this episode in 2004, when the announcers on a random game I was watching talked up the Anaheim Angels’ two-out run-scoring prowess as a measure of their character. They never gave up on an inning and all that.

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Marlon Byrd / CC BY-SA 2.0

The talk sounded like hooey to me, and after digging into the numbers a very little, I discovered that hooey was praising with faint damnation. All the original, context-free graphic, the one that sent analyst Buck Martinez into paroxysms of praise for their scrappiness, had said was that the Angels that year were scoring 40 percent of their runs with two outs.

It turned out that 40 percent wasn’t much above league average or much better than the percentage of the team in the other dugout that day, the Chicago White Sox, who had been about a .500 team for a few years and were a year away from being thought of as scrappy.

I also found out that the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, who were both leading their divisions, didn’t score many runs with two outs, percentage-wise, and the Kansas City Royals, who were last in the league, did.

Since then, whenever I’ve bothered to check on someone’s claims that some player or team is great at scoring with two outs, that claim has turned out to be hooey. It’s usually an anecdotal observation — the Monsters have scored five of their six runs tonight with two outs! — or a product of the fact that more than a third of all runs score with two outs, so most teams look pretty good as two-out run scorers if you think that the average team ought to score 33.3 percent of their runs with two outs.

League averages are pretty constant. It varies by a percent or two from year to year, but you can count on teams scoring about 23 percent of their runs with no outs, 39 percent with one out and 38 percent with two outs.

So Marlon Byrd of the Chicago Cubs has a blog on, and the other day he addressed his own extra special goodness at driving in runs with two outs. This is probably because, at the time he wrote the post, Byrd had 13 RBIs, and 11 of them had come with two down. That’s 85 percent! He now has 15 RBIs, 12 with two outs.

I have no clue why I have so many two-out RBI. Ron Washington pointed it out to me last year. He told me that with two outs, I drive in more runs than I do with less than two outs. He was trying to figure out what my approach was. I said, I’m just trying to bring them in, bottom line. I don’t know. When you see a guy out there, you have to try to keep your focus and try not to do too much and not change anything as far as trying to put the ball in play. I try to relax a little more and just touch the ball — I learned that from Bobby Abreu. He’s unbelievable driving guys in. Just hit it where it’s pitched and sort of flick at the ball and let it hit your bat instead of really trying to drive the ball into the gap.

I don’t think about the pitcher at all, not one bit. I try to stick to my game plan and try to keep it simple and clear my head as much as possible. The more you start thinking, the more you forget about the ball. I just try to see the ball and put it in a good spot and not try to do too much.

Now, before I go any farther, let me just say two things. One is that I like Marlon Byrd. I like how he pulled his career out of the scrap heap when he got to Texas after three terrible years in Philadelphia and Washington. I know his big numbers over the last three years were a product of the ballpark in Texas, but even on the road he was better than he’d been in his Lost Period.

Also, he plays on my Scoresheet team, the Lionhearts, so he’s my guy now. He’s put up a .524/.545/.714 line in limited action as a reserve.

The other thing I want to say is that that excerpt is pretty interesting. Big-picture analysis by current players is usually not compelling in the least, but when you get them talking about how they actually approach their jobs, what they’re thinking, you’ve got something, because these guys are the absolute best in the world at what they do. When they talk about it, you might want to listen.

Byrd doesn’t say anything groundbreaking here. Focus, don’t try to do too much, etc. But it’s interesting to me that when Byrd — or Bobby Abreu, we learn — is up there with two outs and runners in scoring position, he’s trying to “touch the ball,” not “drive the ball into the gap.” I didn’t know that.

That said, I couldn’t help myself. I fact-checked him.

Last year, Marlon Byrd got 39 percent of his RBIs with two outs and 44 percent with 1 out. That’s an odd definition of driving in more runs with two outs than with less than two outs — 61 percent with less than two outs — though maybe Washington, his manager at the time, spoke to him at some early point in the season when it was true.

Remember the usual league average is usually 38 percent with two outs, 39 percent with 1 out, and that’s what it was last year, so Byrd does not seem to be some kind of outlier as a two-out RBI guy. In 2008 he got 23 percent of his RBIs with two outs and 45 percent with one out. Where he really stood out was by getting 32 percent of them with no outs. In 2007, his first year in Texas, Byrd got 40 percent of his RBIs with two outs, 37 percent with one out and 23 percent with no outs, almost exactly league average.

This year, as noted, Byrd has 15 RBIs, 12 of them with two outs. Dumb luck and small sample sizes don’t make for good blog posts, I guess. It must be his extra special two-out voodoo powers. And of course at the end of the year Byrd will still have 80 percent of his RBIs with two outs. Because he’s extra special good that way.

Playing catch with my kid

I’ve been playing catch with my 7-year-old son a lot lately. He’s playing baseball for the first time, Pony League, machine-pitch, and while he’s done some hitting in the past, he never really learned to catch or throw until he started playing in the league.

He can do it now, in a beginner’s sort of way, and he likes practicing. He’s been bugging me a lot to play catch lately. He even wanted to stick around at the park after a practice the other night so he and I could throw the ball around a little. I asked him if that was because he wanted to practice and he said, “Yeah, and also because it’s fun.”

It is fun. I’d forgotten that. It’s been coming back to me as we toss the ball back and forth, usually from only 40 feet or so. I just love playing catch. I always have.

I haven’t done it much over the years. Warming up before softball games, mostly, which I also haven’t done much lately. But even that’s not quite what I mean by playing catch. Throwing the ball before a game serves a purpose. It’s a warmup exercise. It’s fun, but the best way to play catch is to play catch just to play catch.

Great stuffed pillows of prose have been written about games of catch, about fathers and sons and green pastures of spring and all that baloney. I don’t have much use for this kind of thing. Grass gets plenty green without baseball, you know, and fathers and sons who can only talk to each other by playing catch have problems that won’t be solved by playing catch.

As much as I love to play catch, I’ve never really felt that some great mystical communication was going on when I was playing with a friend, or with my dad. It’s fun to play catch with someone I hardly know too. I love the rhythm of it. The simplicity. I love the sound, the pop of the glove when there’s a little mustard on the throw and it’s caught square in the pocket. Catch is a little hypnotizing. It ought to be the most boring thing in the world, but I’ve never ended a game out of boredom. I’ve worn out my arm a few times, though.

I love playing catch with my son not because some magical, wordless discourse travels between us but because I love playing catch and I love that he enjoys playing it with me.

I have to be careful not to fall into the familiar patterns of a game of catch because he’s not ready for that yet. Wherever I’ve played catch and whoever I’ve played it with, at whatever age, catch has always been the same. It starts with simple tossing, a few backward steps every couple of throws to increase the distance. After a while, one or the other will spin a little curveball and invariably get one in return.

Then another curve, or maybe an amateurish split-finger or knuckleball. A screwball for those so inclined, with a question right behind it: “Did that do anything?” Those big-leaguers make a lot of money for a reason. The usual answer: “Not really.”

Soon, one will start winding up, maybe just a little at first, a leg kick. Then an imitation of some famous pitching motion. In my childhood it would have been Juan Marichal’s high leg kick or Luis Tiant’s full turn toward center field, though the windup that comes easiest to me is the rather nondescript one of the pitcher who was a hometown constant through my mid-teens, Don Sutton. It’s a rocking motion with a fluid kick, almost a swing toward home plate. Never mind. I’ll show you sometime.

I wonder if kids still do that as much. Pitchers’ windups seem more uniform now, not as idiosyncratic as they used to be. I think I’ll know the answer to this question within a year or two.

But no, not yet. I have to catch myself before letting loose my favorite pitch, my straight knuckler. No circle changes or palm balls. No dropping down sidearm. I’ve always wanted to invent a pitch, be the guy who figures out a way to configure those five fingers in some way that nobody’s thought of before. This will have to wait.

My son has become reasonably competent at catching balls thrown directly to him. He has trouble on his backhand side and tends not to reach quite high enough for balls higher than eye level. He’ll get there.

For now I concentrate on my mechanics, repeating my motion. I aim a straight, medium-speed ball at his left shoulder on every toss. It would be too easy for him if I could hit the target more consistently, but my shortcomings in this area give him plenty of practice reacting to different kinds of throws.

Each throw is just a throw. It doesn’t carry a message. I send those over with words. “Good!” Or “Whoops, sorry, bad throw!” I’ll tell him to turn the glove over when he forgets to backhand a ball to his right and he’ll tell me about something someone did at the last game. He’ll vow to catch the next 10. I’ll concentrate on laying that ball right on his shoulder so he can do it. He hardly ever does it. Not yet.

These games of catch might be formative moments that my son will take to his grave. I get that. They also might be forgotten and baseball abandoned by winter. I hope I’ll get to keep reprising them until long after my son — and, soon, I hope, my daughter — has had to start holding himself back to make allowances for my age.

But if not, then not. I’ll miss that familiar-again rhythm, that pop of the glove, that little flip to the bare hand, that back and forth. But I’ve missed it before. And whichever way it goes, if my kid and I need to talk to each other, we won’t go out and play catch. We’ll talk.

Then, maybe, if it’s light out and not raining, we’ll play catch. I hope so, because I love to play catch.